Alain Vigneault had the perfect response to the Flyers climbing into a virtual tie for first place in the Metro Division on Thursday night.
Play it coy? Ignore it? Pass it off as meaningless?
No way. He’s advising his group to embrace it.
“It’s quite normal for everybody to be excited. Players, coaches, fans, Flyers’ fans, hockey fans, I mean, this is great hockey,” the coach said. “The competition is unreal, and we’re playing well right now. So everybody should be excited.”
As the NHL season comes down to its final furlongs, there’s a more practical reason to keep piling up the wins. Winning the division will mean home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds, depending on what happens to Boston in the other half of the bracket.
The Bruins (98 points) have an 11-point lead for the Eastern Conference lead over the Flyers and Capitals, who each have 15 games remaining. They’re not catching Boston.
But consider for a moment the difference between first and second in the Metro Division. If the playoffs started today, the Capitals would face Columbus in the first round. The Flyers would get the Penguins.
Pittsburgh is just three points back of the Caps and Flyers and will be a factor to win the division. Three Penguins returned from injury this week, and they’ve recovered from a gruesome six-game losing streak by winning their last two. Evgeni Malkin had six assists in those two victories.
Columbus is riddled with so many injuries, it’d be a minor miracle if they get in. The other wild-card contenders (Islanders, Rangers, Carolina, Florida) also have their flaws.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov is in his fourth season and this already is his third winning streak of at least eight games. By comparison, Vigneault has been an NHL coach for 17 years and this is just his fourth of at least eight games.
The Flyers have been notoriously streaky the last several years, so it’s no surprise there hasn’t been any success in the postseason. But veterans like Provorov and Sean Couturier said things are different under Vigneault.
“My first year, we went on a 10-game winning streak,” Provorov explained. “Last year, we had an eight-game winning streak, but it wasn’t like this. It wasn’t the same feeling. We weren’t playing the same way. This eight-game winning streak, we’re dominating. We’re controlling the play for most of the game and deserve every win.”
The Flyers won 10 in a row in December of 2016 when Provorov was a rookie and Dave Hakstol was the coach. Then they turned around and lost seven of eight. They went 20-23-7 following the streak and became the first team ever with a 10-game winning streak to miss the playoffs.
“During this winning streak,” Couturier said following Thursday’s win over Carolina, “what’s been really good is the [team] mindset. Guys are focused every night. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It’s something that shows maturity in our team. … We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Flyers team record is 13 wins in a row set by the 1985-86 club, a string that is often forgotten because it was happening when goaltender Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a car crash.
The most significant win of that streak was when Darren Jensen came up from the AHL and beat the mighty Edmonton Oilers in the first game since Lindbergh’s death for win No. 11.
The Flyers host Buffalo and Boston, play at Tampa Bay, then have to get past visiting Minnesota before they can get to No. 13. The opponent, eerily enough, is Edmonton on March 15.
But that’s getting way ahead of things.
The Flyers have outscored opponents, 36-16, during the streak, including 14-5 in the second period. Couturier mentioned the other night that the Flyers’ depth was wearing teams down. Consider the following from the last eight games:
*Nine players have have at least five points and 14 have scored a goal.
*Travis Konecny has 13 points, Jake Voracek 11, and Kevin Hayes and Scott Laughton with 9.
*Matt Niskanen is +15. Provorov is +11. Laughton is +10.
*Seven players have been credited with a game-winning goal (Couturier 2, one each for Claude Giroux, Derek Grant, Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, Tyler Pitlick, Michael Raffl).
*Carter Hart’s save percentage is .935 in six of the wins. Brian Elliott’s is .914 in the other two.
*The power-play is 8-22 (36.4%). Before the streak, it was hitting at 19.7%.
But as gaudy as these numbers are, they won’t mean a thing without postseason success. The Flyers haven’t won a playoff series in eight years and everybody in that locker room knows it.
“We want to make the playoffs, obviously,” Couturier said. “The higher seed you get, the [more] home-ice advantage you get [and that] could be huge down the road. We’re in a good position. We’ve just got to keep looking at ourselves and stay in control.”
The tradition in the Flyers locker room is the player of the game in the previous win presents a ceremonial helmet to the top player of that night’s victory. Similar things are done throughout the NHL as a way of promoting team unity.
The Flyers winning streak started on Feb. 18 with a win against Columbus. Here are the postgame helmet winners courtesy of the Flyers social media crew:
Feb. 18: Beat Columbus as Claude Giroux broke Bobby Clarke’s franchise record for power-play assists. Note how Kevin Hayes clowns around.
Feb. 20: Defeated Columbus again, this time in overtime. No helmet celebration footage, but here’s Kevin Hayes’ game-winner.
Feb. 22: Dumped Winnipeg and gave the helmet to a friend who just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Feb. 25: Hayes with two more goals as the Flyers took care of San Jose for win No. 4.
Feb. 28: Dusted the Rangers behind four apples from Jake Voracek.
March 1: Held on to sweep the home-and-home with New York with help from one of the new guys.
March 4: No points, but Nate Thompson stepped in when one of the Capitals was messing with Claude Giroux.
March 5: Goal, three hits, +3 is enough to earn Ivan Provorov the headgear.